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By Engagement3 min read

Homo erectus made the same type of hand axe for 1 million years.

Not very inventive. Tools in those days changed slower than skeletons. Matt Ridely, in his brilliant TED talk ‘When ideas have sex’ explains that innovation accelerated when homo sapien came on the scene. He believes this was because of exchange, which allows ideas to be shared, combined and built upon. Nature shares and combines beneficial mutations through sexual reproduction.If a beneficial mutation happens in an asexual population, it is only passed down in its direct offspring. In a sexual species, a beneficial mutation can be spread across the whole population

Exchange offers the same benefits to a society: one person identifies a new and improved type of axe, this innovation is rapidly spread from tribe to tribe through trade, benefitting all. Exchange allows us to build on the insights of others, to go further or faster than we would have done on our own. There is no evidence of exchange in the form of trade between homo erectus populations, or even Neanderthals. A tendency to exchange seems to be a peculiarly human thing. This may be why we are the only species in the history of the world to become more prosperous as we’ve become more populous. We share ideas, build on them and cross-fertilize with our own. As Sir Isaac Newton said ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants’

So to encourage more innovation in your organization, making the exchange of information as easy and as abundant as possible is a starting criteria. However, it might not be enough. This is where we get back to procreation again. Sex isn’t just about an exchange, you have to be in the mood too!

The ‘mood’ in neuropsychological terms means that their dopamine is flowing. Dopamine has many functions, but of particular interest for me is its association with learning and creativity. Dopamine increases your general arousal and goal focus. At the same time, dopamine also decreases inhibition, making you more likely to experience and express hunches. For these reasons, dopamine leads to improvements in creative thinking and problem solving (and schizophrenia too if way too high!)

Most things that stimulate us create dopamine: novelty, food, caffeine, play and exercise. However, I want to make the case for conversations. Real conversations, not email dialogues, have been shown to significantly increase dopamine levels, especially when the person is not well known or the topic is engaging. This is possibly why, when Kevin Dunbar studied scientists, he found that nearly all of their breakthroughs happened outside the lab, in their chats with other scientists

Conversations allow an interactive exchange of ideas, where thoughts can be played with, explored and integrated. At the same time, conversations generate a dopamine surge to spark your creative juices, and help forge new neural connections. Great conversations create the perfect conditions for creativity

What hand axe do you need to talk about?

For Matt’s TED talk, see

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